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The ‘Digger's Darling’

General Sir Harry Chauvel lined up with a group of officers for practice with an Owen gun
General Sir Harry Chauvel lined up with a group of officers for practice with an Owen gun.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

The ‘Digger's Darling’ refers to the Owen machine carbine—so named because of the affection Australian troops held for the gun during the Second World War and beyond.

Invented by 24-year-old Evelyn Owen from Wollongong in 1939, the Owen gun's story of development (and the hurdles it overcame before being accepted by the Australian Army) is truly remarkable, not to mention a lesson in persistence.

Senior elements within Army fiercely obstructed the top-loading Owen for various reasons, however it proved its worth in numerous tests that pitted it against the established US Thompson gun and the emergent British STEN machine gun. This testing famously included immersing the guns in water and mud before firing and pouring sand over the weapons during live fire. Owen's innovative design, which incorporated minimal sliding parts, a top-loading magazine and bottom ejection port, meant debris efficiently dispersed and, contrary to its rivals, the weapon was highly reliable under extreme conditions.

The persistence of Owen and his collaborators (most significantly, Owen's neighbour and steel product factory manager, Vincent Wardell) combined with a strong dose of political will, saw the weapon overcome protracted resistance and it was embraced by troops serving in New Guinea.

Over 45,000 Owen guns were manufactured and used by Australian forces in successive conflicts until they were replaced mid-way through the Vietnam War by the F1 and M16.

Evelyn Owen made relatively little money from his invention but used the proceeds to establish a saw mill for his brothers to work in post-war. He died from a ruptured gastric ulcer, aged 33.

Watch video of the testing

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